If there was any doubt, it has been laid to rest. A year after taking over as Congress president, Rahul Gandhi has arrived as India’s most important opposition leader and a formidable challenger to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
NEW DELHI – If there was any doubt, it has been laid to rest. A year after taking over as Congress president, Rahul Gandhi has arrived as India’s most important opposition leader and a formidable challenger to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the 2014 general elections, the Congress was down to 44 seats. It has lost a spate of state elections since. It was perceived to be synonymous with corruption and cronyism. Gandhi was seen as a reluctant politician, out of his depth. The party’s social coalition across states had crumbled. Regional leaders were seen as stronger challengers to the BJP than the Congress.
Gandhi, 48, walked in to this landscape, taking over the reins from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, on December 16, 2017. Over the past year, he has done three things, reported Hindustan Times.
First, he took control of the party organisation and acted as a bridge between the old and the young guard. Belying fears, he did not sideline senior leaders. He gave space to all, and impressed upon them the need to ensure the revival of the party.
So, Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot were told to work together. Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh functioned in tandem. Each department of the party — communications, social media, research, data analytics, National Students Union of India, Youth Congress — was told to invest everything in the electoral battlefield.
Nothing was more important than victory. All personal ambitions had to wait. All egos had to be kept in check. Gandhi was willing to empower other leaders, which was often not the case in the past. He only had one condition: they had to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP as ferociously as he was doing.
Second, he identified two issues as the BJP’s biggest vulnerabilities: the agrarian crisis and unemployment. And he sought to construct a coalition of the angry based on class. He told farmers he would take care of them and ensure better prices. He promised loan waivers. He showed to the young the prospect of small and medium businesses as the only way to create employment, while emphasising how the government’s policies had actually cost jobs.
Third, Gandhi battled the secular-communal binary by countering the perception that the Congress was against Hindus. His temple-hopping worked, not as much in winning over Hindus as in assuaging apprehensions about the party’s commitment to the majority community. At the same time, there was a quiet consolidation of minorities in favour of the Congress across states.
Gandhi got his job because of the family he belongs to. But he has now, through the test of democratic legitimacy, shown he is capable of performing that job. Tuesday’s electoral success would strengthen his position not only in the party but also within the opposition camp, which is trying to put up a united front against the BJP next year.
For he has spearheaded, and in a way transformed, the election campaigns of the Congress in the past year.
Days before his elevation, Gandhi launched a spirited campaign in Gujarat where the party threw a tough challenge to the BJP. Though the BJP won the elections, the Congress managed to restore some pride in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah.
A good show in Gujarat galvanised an otherwise demoralised Congress cadre, established his leadership and also silenced his detractors within the party. Since then, there has been no looking back. He led the charge in Karnataka and also in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. In May, Gandhi’s swift move in Karnataka made sure the BJP would have to sit in the opposition benches despite emerging as the single-largest party. As results started trickling in, he offered the chief ministership to the Janata Dal (Secular) as the Congress, which was ruling Karnataka, stopped well short of the majority mark. The sudden formation of the Congress-JD(S) coalition stunned the BJP.
In 2019, Gandhi faces two key challenges.
First, he will have to revive the Congress in key states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal, where it has lost its political space.
Reconnecting with the middle class, the youth and the common people, who appeared disillusioned with the Congress, seems to figure on Gandhi’s agenda.
Second, he will have to bring the influential opposition parties, including the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), on one platform. The two key parties in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh have so far refused to play ball.
With three months remaining for the Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi has to firm up state-specific alliances to prevent division of the opposition vote that would help the BJP.